How Batman, Storm and Harry Potter can cure kid phobias and anxiety
Watching children whizzing around the house with a cape flapping behind them or dressed in an all-in-one Lycra outfit as they try to save the world, is a pretty typical sight for most parents. Superheroes have a special place in the hearts of youngsters and even when they grow up some can’t let go of their fantasy figures. Blockbuster superhero films continue to take millions at the box office, fans flock to conventions and even Dubai has a hugely anticipated Marvel Superheroes Theme Park under construction.
Many look up to superheroes as they fight evil and stand for good. As a kid, pretending to be a superhero can make you feel fearless, out of the ordinary and ultimately just plain good as you help people in need. Who doesn’t want to be an adored hero?
Without even realising it, acting as a superhero can help kids develop superpowers of their own to help them cope with the challenges of life. Psychologist and psychotherapist Francesca Moresi, managing director at The Ambrose Clinic in Knightsbridge, London (susieambroseclinic.com), believes that superheroes can give kids fantastic guidance. ‘They can have a good influence on children and teach them to support others or allow them to find their strengths, develop morals, and generosity,’ she explains. ‘Identifying with superheroes helps children to find the courage to deal with the real situations in their life. Superheroes are protectors who fight against villains and the division between the two is strong and clear. Therefore kids learn to distinguish what is good and what is bad and, identifying with the hero, they can discover their values.’
Francesca says the characters allow kids to be daring and express the braver parts of their personalities while at the same time acknowledging their vulnerabilities and limits. Superheroes might be courageous, but they certainly aren’t perfect and they all have their own problems. ‘This is very important because it is what allows kids to stay grounded without getting lost in an imaginary world,’ she explains.
‘Identifying with these characters becomes helpful for coping with reality and accepting it comes with its flaws.’
In fact, it seems that superheroes aren’t just called on to protect galaxies and fight the bad guys – they’re now being used to help children and adults with their problems right here on planet Earth.
Dr Janina Scarlet is a clinical psychologist in the US and is one of many who uses Superhero Therapy in her teachings and with her clients (superhero-therapy.com). ‘I use superheroes and characters from science fiction and fantasy and other ‘geek’ culture media in evidence-based therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT),’ Dr Scarlet explains.
‘Superhero Therapy uses examples of these characters to promote positive changes in patients with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other disorders.’
Children, as well as many adults, often have a hard time talking about and understanding their own feelings but Dr Scarlet says that being able to relate to a superhero, such as Batman, can show children that they’re not alone in their struggle and can motivate them to face their
Superheroes HELP CHILDREN find the courage to deal with the REAL situations in their lives. They learn to distinguish what is GOOD and BAD and discover their VALUES
Superheroes stand for more than just wearing PANTS on the outside of tights. They represent JUSTICE and INTEGRITY – they DEFEND the innocent and face their enemies even with the ODDS against them
fears and make a positive change. By asking a simple question such as “what would Batman do in this situation?”, children can potentially be inspired to make a big difference.
‘When I’ve worked with children in the past, we’ve sometimes worn superhero costumes when doing exposures as part of therapy,’ Dr Scarlet says. ‘Exposure refers to facing someone’s fear. For example, if a child has school anxiety, a likely exposure would be to go to school. Sometimes wearing a superhero outfit or even having a superhero symbol to remind the child that they are courageous, just like their favourite superhero, can make a big difference in that child’s participation and willingness to face their fear.’
Being young can seem like a powerless time, and superheroes stand for more than just wearing pants on the outside of tights for kids. They represent justice and integrity; they defend the innocent and face their enemies even when the odds are stacked against them because it’s the right thing to do.
Aamnah Husain is a psychologist and parenting expert for Dubai’s play centre Fun City (funcity.ae), and agrees that imitating superheroes can be a very valuable exercise for children.
‘Through the process they are able to use their imagination and creativity. It can introduce concepts of good and bad, of helping the weak and using your strength for good,’ Aamnah says. ‘Superheroes can be like companions and imaginary friends for children and by acting like them they are able to explore the world through their eyes. By imagining themselves in the guise of their favourite hero, children may also feel a degree of power and control that they otherwise lack because of their age.’
As with any activity, Aamnah says it’s important that parents use caution and assess how superhero play is affecting their child. She suggests looking at your child’s favourite superheroes and checking that their values are in line with the ones you wish to teach your kids. ‘At times superheroes can treat women in a derogatory manner, or they may have great wealth,’ she explains.
‘Children could assume these are prerequisites for being a superhero so you may want to redirect their attention to the better aspects of their nature. And always ensure that your children’s viewing age is appropriate.’ And don’t worry about superheroes teaching your children that violence is good. Dr Scarlet says research studies have so far shown that connecting with a fictional character like Batman, Superman or Harry Potter actually reduces the risk of violence and is more likely to make kids more compassionate.
‘When we hear about the suffering of another character, the empathy centres of our brain react, making it more likely that we’ll respond with kindness to people in a similar situation in real life,’ Dr Scarlet explains. ‘While bullying and violence can happen anywhere at any time, it seems that identifying with a fictional hero is more likely to reduce violence than to increase it.’
Dr Scarlet says superheroes are important to us even as we grow into adults. ‘They give us a sense of purpose and they remind us of what our values are, what we stand for,’ she explains. ‘We know through numerous research studies that people with a strong sense of purpose, people who honour their values are less likely to develop a mental health disorder and are more likely to overcome anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Therefore, I think that by inspiring us to become the very best versions of ourselves, superheroes are essentially teaching us to be more resilient.’ So just what life lessons can children learn from the superheroes they idolise?
TRIUMPH OVER ADVERSITY
Superheroes don’t always have it easy. Batman’s parents were murdered,
Contrary to popular belief, engaging in the imaginary world of superheroes does not promote violence, and instead reduces the risk